May 21--For the first time in 20 years, a Wilmington artist's watercolors and sketches from Army service in World War II are on display at Wilmington'sCape Fear Museum.
"World War II: A Local Artist's Perspective" opened May 15 in the museum at 814 Market St., in time for Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. It will remain on display through the spring of 2015.
The local artist is Henry Jay MacMillan (1908-1991), who was drafted into the Army in 1942 at the age of 35. Based on his art training at what is now New York'sParsons School of Design and in Paris, MacMillan was assigned to the 62nd Engineer Topographic Company, a mapmaking unit based at Fort Belvoir, Va. The company was later attached to the Army'sXIX Corps, and MacMillan found himself landing in France
19 days after D-Day.
Viewers quickly encounter what he was doing: a series of deceptively calm landscapes of heavily forested hillocks. These were the bocage, or hedgerows, embankments half earth and half hedge, which had defined the borders of Norman farms since the Middle Ages.
These hedgerows, up to 15 feet high, made ideal defensive works and, in Normandy in the summer of 1944, the German army was using them to deadly effect.
"Photographs couldn't capture this terrain," said curator Barbara Rowe of the Cape Fear Museum. So the Army sent in Henry Jay MacMillan to do a series of watercolors. In conjunction with maps the 62nd was making, this package was intended to show GIs how to fight through the hedgerow maze.
MacMillan's hedgerow images are businesslike, without any human figures. Here and there, viewers can see stray objects on the ground -- milk cans, bullet shells, grenades -- left behind by German soldiers as they pulled out in a hurry.
"You can read in his journals about all the dead birds lying around, killed by the shelling," Rowe said. "And then you look in one of these paintings, and there's a dead bird."
MacMillan also had time to record what he saw. Several watercolors show the ruins of the strategic Norman town of Saint-L", the scene of heavy shelling and fierce fighting. The word "Justice" on the shattered portico of the Saint-L" courthouse, he wrote, "mocked the desolation."
The World War II paintings form a stark contrast with MacMillan's other work, which tended to be floral studies and portraits, said Anne Brennan, director of the Cameron Art Museum.
The exhibit also includes photos of MacMillan at work, in a GI haircut, as well as a Christmas card he sketched for members of his company. One case holds his paint box, his unit patch and his Army ID card.
A native of Wilmington, MacMillan studied with Elisabeth Chant as a teenager, and had been involved in efforts to found the short-lived Wilmington Museum of Art. His work was featured at the New York World's Fair in 1939. In 1940, he recruited artistic friends such as Claude Howell, Peggy Hall and his sister, Helen MacMillan Lane, to help repaint and decorate the restored interior of Thalian Hall.
After the war, MacMillan went on to teach at Parsons before retiring to his hometown. A postwar photo shows Macmillan at a local beach, still wearing his Army fatigue jacket. Howell noted that he seemed to be "suffering depression from the war." Brennan thinks some of that depression lingered for the rest of MacMillan's life.
In 1973, he donated his artworks to the Cape Fear Museum, which mounted a massive show in 1994. Since then, MacMillan's artworks have been featured on the World War II website maintained by UNCW's Randall Library (http://library.uncw.edu/capefearww2/art/art.html).
The current show won't unpack all of MacMillan's war art.
"We're kind of skipping Holland and Belgium," Rowe said.
Right now, MacMillan's Normandy art is featured. In November, this will be replaced by what MacMillan painted when the XIX Corps moved into Germany.
Ben Steelman: 910-343-2208
(c)2014 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)
Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services